Are you a mentor, or are you just getting in the way?

It’s Friday, and Fridays are good days for thinking. It’s unclear that it is a good day to write about what you’ve been thinking, but here goes anyway.

I’m involved in a couple of different communities (hacking and amateur radio) which might be characterized as “ageing”. As a young adult, I was influenced by Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. It gave a name to the kind of computer exploration that I was interested in, and the description of the early MIT hacker community showed that there were other people in the world who were interested in understanding and programming these amazing machines. Despite the fact that I was coming onto the scene as part of the microcomputer revolution of the 1980s, I felt that the spirit of these hackers was akin to my own. They seemed to experience the same odd pleasure that I got when exploring a machine, and making it do something unusual or unexpected. Many people in this community who are my age are interested in trying to instill some of these ideals into a younger generation of hackers, and have asked what we can do to mentor them along.

In amateur radio, there is a long history of “Elmers”: hams who help younger and more inexperienced hams by giving them the benefit of their experience. There is little doubt that the ham radio community is aging: while attending Pacificon last year, I suspect I was in the youngest two percent of attendees, and I’m in my late forties. It’s a very common thing for hams to actively seek ways to bring new blood into the ranks of the licensees. For some, it’s just a way to help ensure the continued use of the frequencies that they enjoy, but I would suspect that the majority of hams merely want to pass on some of the experiences and joy that they have derived from their favorite hobby.

But here is my somewhat skeptical observation: neither community does a very good job. And frankly, that’s been a source of some puzzlement on my part. For all the effort that we expend trying to extol the virtues of computer exploration or the construction and use of radios, we aren’t attracting huge numbers to the hobby. In fact, I suspect that this kind of advocacy hasn’t resulted in any measurable increase in either community. Why is that?

I suspect it is because mentors don’t actually create interest in subjects. No amount of extolling the virtue learning about antennas or building radios or learning CW ever convinces anyone that they should become a radio amateur. No promoting of the virtues of programming, learning the internals of machines or security will ever make it interesting to someone who isn’t already curious and interested. Either you find such things interesting, or you do not. No amount of advocacy can turn your apathy into interest.

Consider it this way: I’m deeply uninterested in fashion. There are people who nonetheless view it as their passion, as a source of considerable joy in their lives. That’s actually okay. I’m just not one of them, and no amount of cajoling on their part is likely to change my mind.

I’m also relatively (and somewhat oddly) unmoved by music. For me, piano lessons was always mostly a chore. I simply don’t experience the joy and emotions that people get from listening to most music. Intellectually, I can appreciate it, but I don’t feel passionate about it.

If I can’t be mentored into a passion for music and fashion, why am I puzzled when my own efforts to mentor people into things I do enjoy fall mostly on deaf ears?

That’s not to say that mentors can’t be helpful: they absolutely can. The experience of people is incredibly useful, and can help the inexperienced see farther and better than they could stumbling on their own. And, if you happen to find a mentor who has gone along a path you are already interested in, they can serve as inspiration. But they do not themselves create the passion and drive that makes a person try to master a new subject. TThat comes from individuals themselves, and it is inappropriate for “mentors” to imagine that it is through their own virtue that their passions are perpetuated.

A couple of illustrative examples of how things can go wrong:

To become a ham radio operator, you need to become licensed, which means passing a relatively straightforward exam. The entry level license is for a “Technician” class license, which basically requires getting 70% correct on a multiple choice test drawn from a published question pool. It’s not very hard, and in fact a great many ham radio clubs hold “ham cram” events, where they meet for a day to try to cram enough stuff into your head so that you can pass the exam the same day.

One particular ham I know hates these events. His claim is that these events are “cheating” and that they deny the new licensees the opportunity to learn the material “properly”. He usually follows this with a story about how he learned this stuff. How he had to be licensed as a novice, and had to upgrade. How he had to master Morse code, work his way up through the license classes. How he learned to do everything at the foot of his mentors, and how he was glad they were around. He’ll then usually lapse into a diatribe about how kids today “play too many video games” or “don’t work hard like we used to” or “feel they are entitled”.

It makes me groan inside.

A ham radio license isn’t a diploma. It’s a license, just like a fishing license. It grants limited, uses of a shared public resource. Without it, you can’t transmit on amateur frequencies. Hence, it’s really just a road block: it gets in the way of you experiencing the thing that you might be passionate about. From my perspective, you should figure out a way to get licensed so you can get on with your passion. From my friends perspective, that road block should be as high as possible, so you really deserve the privileges you enjoy.

He’s not a bad sort, really. He thinks he’s helping novices, but in reality he’s just trying to shore up the road blocks that keep people from entering the hobby. His “mentoring” is significantly blunted by his desire to make people “pay their dues”.

I’ve heard a number of people speak on “how do we encourage the next generation of hackers”. I similarly find these kinds of talks misplaced. When I reread Levy’s Hackers, I experienced some nostalgia, but I also thought there was a lesson to be learned. Levy highlighted three different groups of hackers: the original MIT hacker community which grew up around the PDP-1, the Hardware Hackers who brought about the Altair computer, and the game hackers who surrounded Sierra Online. What I think is amazing is that none of these stories gave any hint of the revolution in computing that was to come. The rise of the Internet, search and social media simply isn’t visible in this book. Richard Stallman is mentioned as the “last real hacker”, with a sort of wistful nostalgia, with the near certainty that he will simply fade into obscurity, totally missing the revolution of free and open source software that he helped inspire. There is no sense that some of the early work of (say) the Xerox Alto would eventually fuel the second phase of Apple’s existance, and ultimately change pretty much everything about computers.

In other words, much of the “hacker” revolution that some of us (myself included) like to refer to with a sense of wistful nostalgia wasn’t as closely linked to the revolutions that were to come as we would like to imagine. When we draw on our own early experiences to try to find ways to educate or inspire newcomers, we often do so through this overly narrow view of history. We might think that “really” understanding machine code or architectures are important, and that the only way to do that is to go through the same sort of exercises that we did. But consider this: if we would have had access to the machines and information back then, we wouldn’t have tolerated this kind of spoon feeding either. We would have simply grabbed all that we could in pursuit of our passions.

Young people today are no different.

Here’s my recipe for success: don’t bother trying to recruit people to your passions. The best you can do is find those already interested, and make it easy for them to find you. Use social media. Publish your passions on your blog. Do what you love, and do it visibly. And when you find others who enjoy the same thing, try to engage. Do stuff. Collaborate. Gather. Exchange.

And most importantly: don’t try to convince someone that the way you enjoy something is the only proper way. Don’t dismiss their approach to their passions, simply because they aren’t the same as your own. Seek to help remove the roadblocks that keep them from progressing, don’t introduce new ones yourself to justify your own approach.

And most of all, have fun, and keep doing what you are doing!

What do you all think?

5 thoughts on “Are you a mentor, or are you just getting in the way?”

  1. I appreciate your well thought out post on this issue.

    It’s my opinion that in the case of amateur radio, your almost last paragraph pinpoints the problem.

    “And most importantly: don’t try to convince someone that the way you enjoy something is the only proper way. …”

    This particular trait of grabbing hold of a belief (about anything), and then beating it into the ground is common among other aspects of human behavior – like religion. Consider the fundamentalist view of two of the largest religions on the planet. They share this common trait: “We know the correct way to come to God. Your way is wrong. If you persist in your way not only will you end up in hell, but you will drag the rest of the world down with you – so we must stop you.”

    How is that line of thinking fundamentally any different from those radio amateurs who believe with all their heart that newcomers must study and expend much sweat equity to obtain a license, and then once having that license in hand they must operate CW only, using only home-built gear and sub-optimal antennas – and anything other than that is not “real ham radio”. And if we allow newcomers to skip these rules, it won’t just ruin them but it will also destroy the entire hobby – so we must stop you…?

    If we could fix that one flaw in the evolution of the human brain then perhaps we could not only “fix” the ham radio problem, but perhaps cause peace to break out all over the globe.

    Tall order?


    But I still really like your post!

    73, Jeff

  2. As a hopeful-to-be-hamette:

    1) Thanks for being the best elmer I could ever expect to have 🙂 You’ve helped me numerous times in explaining concepts in easy-to-understand methods. And I appreciate that /greatly/.

    2) I asked some hams during HamNation what they thought new hams should do – memorize test questions or learn the material first and then take the test. It was split – 1/3 memorize 2/3 learn the material. But then some of the 2/3 folks also said that their 10 year old children were taking the tests. (Maybe I’m just jealous of the 10yr olds :)). And having researched ham so much – I think my enjoyment is as much in the learning about it as it will be in the actual using it.

    3) I agree. If I hadn’t already had a desire to learn about ham radio, nothing anyone else said would have convinced me otherwise. It’s like when I had to research digital ham protocols. It took me a long time before I made the decision to look into them, regardless of how much others appreciated them.

    Anyway – thanks for being a great mentor to me!


  3. I think you’re totally right here, you be as welcoming as you can, helpful as you can, and inspirational as you can, but regardless, its the other person who is going to make it happen or not. We are constantly bombarded by people trying to manipulate us one way or the other, religion, politics, marketing, etc. Its been that way for a long time, and people just keep adapting to it. Which requires people wanting our attention, to try even harder, and for us to ignore even more. This sort of stuff trickles down into everything. And I would imagine the inability to bring people in, through these plans, that this has something to do with it. I would also suspect “kids these days” aren’t as fascinated by the technology. I remember the first time I transmitted data over IR 2 years ago, I was darn near giddy, but then again, I still remember holding the remote control of my families first remote controlled TV, I still remember what it looked like, 30 years later. Not just that though, even school, they’ve spent all these years searching for that magic recipe to get through to kids, which will never be as effective, or easy, as when the kids find a good reason to want to learn it themselves. I’m a firm believer in not baby sitting people, if they want it, they want it, if not, it’s their loss. Holding their hand constantly just makes it worse, they never learn to pay their dues, because they expect someone to motivate them through it constantly. First lesson I learned in the real world, living on my own, you got to want it, you got to go get it yourself, no one is going to do it for you. Its great to have a mentor, I had a teacher I remember fondly. He was inspirational, he saw a talent in me, no one had ever seen before, he was always there to answer my questions, or just talk. He opened the door, but I had to walk through, I had to go after it. After that, the sky was the limit. But there were no arbitrary hoops to jump through, just for the sake of making someone jump through them. There was purpose, there was a good reason what had to be done, needed to be done, and that’s key too.

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